TOPICS > Politics

Campaigns Vie for Virginia Voters, Especially Women

August 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Undecided voters in northern Virginia are likely to determine which candidate wins Old Dominion's 13 electoral votes. And the presidential campaigns are focusing their efforts on winning over the undecided voters, primarily suburban women. Judy Woodruff reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we come back to the presidential race.

The Old Dominion is one of the most critical battleground states this fall, and nowhere is it tighter than in Northern Virginia. The campaign firepower isn’t as loud, or lethal, as these cannons used to commemorate the infamous bloody Battle of Bull Run 151 years ago.

But the presidential showdown here in Northern Virginia across the river from the nation’s capital could be even more decisive than that early Civil War skirmish.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: How’s it going, Leesburg?


JUDY WOODRUFF: By a convincing six-point margin, President Obama swept this former stronghold of the Confederacy in 2008, the first win for a Democrat here since Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s.

Northern Virginia is a special focus for both campaigns because of the rapidly changing nature of who votes here. Jobs and a steady, healthy economy have attracted hundreds of thousands of commuting newcomers, like these, of different political stripes and whose priorities that may not necessarily match those of longtime Virginia residents.

STEPHEN FARNSWORTH, University of Mary Washington: Well, in many ways, Northern Virginia has undergone a real transformation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Stephen Farnsworth teaches political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

STEPHEN FARNSWORTH: One of the real powerful factors drawing people to Northern Virginia is the fact that there is a lot of government employment, not only working for the federal agencies in Washington, but also a lot of military bases, as well as defense contractors and otherwise. And so what you see in Virginia is an extraordinary growth that is seen in very few parts of this country right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So much growth that one-third of the Old Dominion’s population now lives within about an hour’s drive of Washington, D.C. Not only that — the new Virginia is far more diverse than the old.

STEPHEN FARNSWORTH: You have a large number of Latino voters in Northern Virginia. You have a large number of African-American voters in Northern Virginia. And you have a growing number of other immigrant groups as well, particularly, Asians are very fought after in Virginia politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It adds up to conventional wisdom that, as goes Northern Virginia, so goes the entire state. That’s why both candidates are regular visitors to the area and why Romney brought his new running mate here over the weekend.

MITT ROMNEY (R): This is a terrific welcome and a pretty clear indication that, come November 6, Virginia is going to vote for Romney-Ryan and we’re going to take back the White House!


BARACK OBAMA: We won Loudoun County last time.


BARACK OBAMA: And if we win Loudoun County this time, we will win Virginia, and if we win Virginia, we will win this election.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Local Democrats like U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly say they hope the president’s right, and point to the area’s many government connections, giving it an economic cushion, an unemployment rate of 5.7 percent, one of the lowest in the nation in the aftermath of the financial crash and the recession.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D-Va.): I represent, for example, the highest median household income in the United States in terms of congressional districts, very high educational achievement levels, very high-performing school systems, an economy and jobs that were created with the unique partnership between the federal government and the private sector.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Republicans like Gov. Bob McDonnell say not so fast, that even with a healthy jobs picture, residents here know the president’s policies haven’t worked.

GOV. BOB MCDONNELL (R-Va.): Look, we’re $5 trillion more in debt. We have no energy policy that is working. And so it’s just time for a change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just one year after these suburban counties turned blue for Obama, an emphasis on jobs helped McDonnell to a double-digit victory winning them back. But a deeply conservative state legislature that made national news pushing mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions has since hurt Republicans with moderate voters.

And with Romney’s pick of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate, a new dynamic has been added to both campaigns’ efforts to appeal to female voters. An avowed Catholic, Ryan is strongly anti-abortion, as is Romney.

Women made up 54 percent of the vote four years ago, and favored Obama slightly more than men did. The Obama team sees another opening this year.

MARY MCLEAN, Va.: I don’t think the government, you know, should — should be in my bedroom, should be in my doctor’s office, should be determining who I’m allowed to marry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We caught up with Mary McLean and a trio of other mothers of young children taking an exercise class in Loudoun County. Three had voted for Obama last time, and all shared her view on abortion.

MEREDITH WARREN, Va.: You shouldn’t be able to dictate morality to people. I think it should be a choice, and I think everybody should be able to choose for themselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the main issue these exurban moms say is on their minds is the economy. And two of the three who supported Obama in ’08 say they still aren’t decided this time.

MEREDITH WARREN: One thing that I — interests me from the Romney side was he seems to have an interesting way of thinking about letting people — savings and investments. But I don’t know that I can solely place the blame on Obama. I think he’s done some good things. And I think he’s done some not-good-things. And I don’t know that Romney will do any better or any worse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Every day, every few minutes, in fact, if they go online or watch TV, voters here are reminded of all this by the well-funded Romney campaign.

NARRATOR: And the president is running out of time. Under Obama’s economy, it’s just not getting better. Mitt Romney has a plan for a stronger middle class.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Obama campaign, acknowledging it has a tougher job this time around, has fired back with ads criticizing Romney’s business record.

NARRATOR: President Romney’s first 100 days: creating thousands of new jobs for Virginians.

NARRATOR: But would he? The Washington Post has just revealed that Romney’s companies were pioneers in shipping U.S. jobs overseas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The owner of Mommy Bootcamp, Kathy Corbey, expressed a view many women can relate to.

KATHY CORBEY, owner, Mommy Bootcamp: I feel like half the time, I’m folding laundry and kind of listening in to what’s going on. But I also feel like I take everything with a grain of salt, because they say it, and then it just — you don’t know what’s going to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The one self-described Republican in the group, who’s not yet sold on Romney, said she still hasn’t heard a persuasive plan for the economy.

RHINA SMITH, Va.: Everyone has great ideas, but as soon as they get elected, you go back and revert to what the previous president has done. I haven’t seen anyone really step outside the box.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The economy is also uppermost on the mind of Debbie Meighan of Leesburg. Her horseback riding business took a hit with the recession.

DEBBIE MEIGHAN, Va.: It definitely affected us, because not only did I have a drop-off in my clients, but also my supplies costs were going up, the cost for hay, the cost for feed, veterinary costs. So I was really caught in a squeeze, and I had to cut back on — you know, I had to cut back on our own discretionary spending.

We always live a pretty frugal life. We always watch our spending, but we had to watch it that much more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meighan says she also doesn’t know enough about what either candidate would do for the economy. And as someone who often votes Republican, she has more questions for Gov. Romney.

DEBBIE MEIGHAN: I know that he has a business background. I feel like that could help him. But I feel also like he seems to be kind of hanging back and hoping that people are just going to vote against Obama and not really have to say anything that he might have to be held accountable for later.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not far away, in Middleburg, Lisa Patterson, who usually votes Democratic, says she leans toward Obama, but believes neither candidate understands small business, like the sandwich shop she used to run.

LISA PATTERSON, Va.: Neither of them — you know, I’m talking about a restaurant that grossed $250,000 a year. We’re talking small. But I employed 10 people. And that’s important. Now, they weren’t high-paying jobs, but those are jobs. And in a community of 700, those are really important jobs. And I don’t think either of them have got a grasp on that at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To try to sway these fence-sitters, both campaigns have upped their ground game. Obama got the earlier start, but both have now opened offices all across Northern Virginia.

While it tries to overcome what some recent polls show is a double-digit lead for President Obama among women here, the Romney camp is separately making a big push for voters with ties to Northern Virginia’s defense industry.

PETE SNYDER, Virginia Victory 2012: And when you look at issues like sequestration, they could have a crippling effect on the economy here in Northern Virginia. That would actually make unemployment soar.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Entrepreneur and investor Pete Snyder, who chairs the Romney campaign in Virginia, argues the potential cuts in Pentagon spending that could result since Congress and the White House didn’t agree on a budget plan are the fault of the president.

PETE SNYDER: Virginia doesn’t believe it’s a failure on both sides. There is only one person that can really step in and change this right now. And that’s the highest office in the land.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Democrats, including Congressman Gerry Connolly, emphatically reject the charge.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D-Va.): It was Republicans who refused a clean debt ceiling vote. They were the ones who said no. They were the ones who walked away from the super committee. Remember that?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Connolly and others say what matters most, despite the prosperity that blesses this part of the state, is the economy, who connects with those middle-class swing voters, especially moms.

LISA PATTERSON: Cutting taxes across the board sounds great. Everybody would love to have their taxes lowered. But what are you going to cut in order to allow that to happen?

MARY MCLEAN: I think the hard part is, well, if he’s not delivering, what are you going to do that is delivering? What would you do so differently?

JUDY WOODRUFF: The choice of Ryan as his running mate energizes Republican and Democratic voters in Virginia, but for Gov. Romney and President Obama, questions like these continue to hang in the air.

So, just what does each campaign need to do to win Virginia? We asked Professor Farnsworth. His answers are on our website.